The Great Train Race, vintage cars and aircraft at Heidelberg

By Nick Bates


In March 1930 (and some three months before Bentley would win the great Le Mans 24-hour motor race again), Bentley racing driver Woolf Barnato - heir to Barney Barnato's Kimberley diamond millions - was at a dinner party in Cannes when the subject of racing the famous Le Train Bleu came up. Both Rover and Alvis had recently beaten the train from St Raphael to Calais.

Barnato wagered a bet that at the wheel of his own Speed Six Bentley he could beat the train to Calais with ease.

At 5:45pm on Thursday 13 March 1930 as the train left Cannes, Barnato and his companion, amateur golfer Dale Bourne, set off in the Speed Six from Carlton Bar. Driving through the night and after covering nearly 1000km on dirt roads - and using up their only spare wheel - the duo arrived in Calais so far ahead of the train that Barnato sought to put the challenge to bed by making it all the way to London before the express train pulled into Calais. They crossed the English Channel on a packet steamer, completed another 100km or so of hard driving and, to loud applause, Barnato parked his Speed Six outside the Conservative Club in St James Street, London, at exactly 3:20pm - four minutes before Le Train Bleu arrived at Calais Station.

So, the Heidelberg Great Train Race is not a race at all, but rather a salute to that maverick event.

With the preamble behind us, I arrived at FAHG at some 08h45 to be greeted with a plethora of largely 'petrol' fuelled machines. Winged versions, two wheeled variants, fling wing things, tricycle contraptions- you name it. And of course, a few Jet A1/Avtur variants.

All and sundry on Heritage Day found themselves at the historical town of Heidelberg. The airfield has a single asphalt runway (06/24) measuring 1200m in length and is at altitude 5067ft. For those that did their two-year stint at Signals, it's a mere stone's throw from the army barracks.

By 09h30, incoming traffic had slowed to snail's crawl- in these hot highveld conditions, aviators are a wise bunch- arrive early! Have a snack and some coffee, rub shoulders with like minded enthusiasts and leave before it gets too bumpy (or cloudy) on the way out.

I sauntered around the various displays and soon came to the conclusion that the event was pleasantly over attended. This is indeed a good thing, especially if you're a vendor, but more of that later.

For a reference, some 86 aircraft movements were recorded, while two hot air balloons drifted in, along with six Paragliders. The tarmac travellers amounted to 235 cars and 72 motorcycles. Compare this to the Covid inhibited event of 2020, which drew 130 cars and 20 motorcycles and you get an idea. My maths is abysmal, but the tar brigade grew by around 80% on average- that takes some doing!!!!!

Last years saw just 65 aircraft movements. Go figure.

The arrival of the Rovos Rail Steam Train, upon which the event gains its attraction, drew much interest. Every man and his dog arrived at the siding just 2.5km from the airfield to witness its huffing, puffing and panting. The street was lined with enthusiasts, locals, vendors and the obligatory car parking attendants. I'd hazard a guess at 3 000 spread over a 2km stretch of railway which remains intact.

I happened upon a train fundi who explained all sorts of stuff about trains that have long been forgotten- guard vans etc. But finally, she arrived with an escort of Alouette 3 and 2 models, while a Boeing Stearman and Chipmunk added to the colour with their smokey plumes. A few others joined in overhead at varying times, but needless to say, her arrival was very well attended. My fundi explained that the main locomotive was oil fuelled versus coal, a slightly different approach from his pedigreed view, but no doubt a huge saver (and less shower time) - shovelling a few tons of coal must be hard, very dirty work in close proximity of the furnace/boiler.

From there, we set sail back to the airfield to watch the departing planes, along with a three-man ship display courtesy of the Goodyear Eagles, which is always a joy to watch. Some of the Rovos guests arrived in their vintage attire and who had had, no doubt, a very colourful journey aboard the open-air pub that is towed at the rear of the train.

The important bit follows, as mentioned earlier.

Van Zyl is a very hands-on character, even ensuring that the vintage cars arrived at the siding on time and personally directing the traffic flow accordingly, with a few colourful nouns thrown in on occasion.

But after chatting to him after the show, the event could well become a full air show next year, Covid permitting. He has a sponsor in his sights, which bodes very well for aviation enthusiasts. To get an existing sponsor to part with their lolly is one thing: - to bag a new one is unprecedented in today's tough times.

Van Zyl has also undertaken to bring in a few much-needed improvements for the 2022 bash: - more food vendors, maybe a few porta loos, more refreshment points and a string of other additions are all on the agenda. Maybe a dedicated media area? (hint, hint). The queues were a little tedious.

The synergy between FAHG and Rovos works well and will no doubt improve as the two parties 'find' each other beyond 2022.

In closing, we pondered the value of all exhibits present at FAHG. Van Zyl mentioned earlier that one hangar, not generally accessible to the public, had a collection of metalwork topping R75 bar. One hangar? Imagine the rest of it.


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